Nebraska Territory, August 1876
It was well past noon when the gunman strode into town.
Though exacting, his stride was measured. He walked with his back to the setting sun and in his wake was a trail of grit stretching 25 miles. His saddle was slung over his shoulder; around his waist, his Slim Jim was short two cartridges: One for his stricken horse, and one for the rattler that struck. Both cartridges—not to mention his horse—would need replacing if Hank Lockwood hoped to keep his appointment in Cheyenne.
First, he needed to reach the General Store.
Lockwood disliked Ogallala. Far as he was concerned, the place was less a town and more a railhead with airs. Founded in '68, Ogallala was located at the junction between the emigration trails of the Platte River valley, the Great Western Cattle Trail out of Texas and the transcontinental railroad. Still unincorporated, the town was little more than a smattering of stores with sundries aplenty and a water tower.
On principle, the gunman never concealed his livelihood. As he went through the town, Colts corralled in leather, Lockwood watched the residents take one look then become preoccupied with banalities—women drew their kin closer to their skirts, pretending to window shop; men stood taller in their boots, minding their step—least till he passed. Even the resident snake-oil salesman recoiled at his approach.
With a sidelong glance, he passed the Ogallala House. The previous evening saw him held up there, where he ate alone in a crowded dining room and drank alone in an emptied hotel room. There he sardonically toasted the town after an Old Fashioned: "C'est la vie."
So long as there was gunwork to be done, gunmen would be welcomed in places like Ogallala; once that well dried up, best not tarry. Already a day behind, there was gunwork to be had in Cheyenne and Marshall J. H. Burdrick was not renowned for his patience. In time, Cheyenne would dry up, leaving him to seek gunwork elsewhere.
Amusingly, the Texan cowhands paid him no heed whatsoever. As was the case two nights ago, the town was overrun with their lot. Unlike then, they were now idle with not a single cow in sight. The gunman surmised that the train must have arrived in the interim, prompting the cowhands to load their charges into stock cars bound for eastern markets.
Further up the street, a raucous jubilee drew the gunman's sights. Outside the Crystal Palace was an exchequer doling out stipends to the gathered cowhands, soliciting hoots, hollers and the occasional celebratory gunfire.
Not since Honey Hill had Lockwood cursed, but curse he did. The last place he wanted to be stranded, short two cartridges and a horse, was a railhead with dozens of drunken cowhands. Such a situation was liable to see him plying his trade and no man, not even a Texan, deserved to die after a summer's hard work on account of imbibing more liquor than he had common sense to his name.
Resolute, the gunman approached the General Store.
* * *
Outside the General Store stood the cowhand, awestruck.
All of sixteen, Leslie Childs Jr., never knew his pa on account that Leslie Childs Sr. had died in '62 at Seven Pines, leaving his ma to rear him and his twin sisters on her lonesome. Learning as she went, Ma had done her best in teaching her son what it was to be a man. She taught him when to curse, where to hunt and how to shoot. Above all else, she had instilled in him Texan pride, to never let no slight go unanswered—least of all not one from no darn good Yankee. Just like Pa.
Earlier that summer, Childs had bolted with Ma's horse, Sarsaparilla, swearing he'd make amends soon enough. He found work as a cowhand riding north with Ms. Nicole Lawrence's cattle drive. That alone was a real distinction as back home Ms. Lawrence was a living legend, equal parts cattle baroness and trail boss.
Even with her in the saddle, the ride along the Western Trail was an arduous one: Childs had endured stampedes, survived Sioux raids and watched good Texans die. Still, ever the eager greenhorn, he had afforded himself well enough. So much so that Ms. Lawrence herself invited him to return to the ranch. "We can always use ourselves a sure hand," she had said, handing over Childs' stipend of $60.
Never had he been so grass-bellied with spot cash. What's more, it was all his and not Ma's. He had done the work, not her, and he could spend his cash as he darn well pleased and she had no say otherwise. Childs had counted out twelve dollars worth for himself before squirreling the rest away into his boot (buying his way back into Ma's good graces), then entered the General Store to make his purchase.
Afterward, he stole several moments to stand outside and marvel over his reward for a job well done: A Remington Model 1875 Single Action Army Revolver.
Now, he was a man-grown with his own gun.
Passing Childs on the street was their chuck wagon cook, Éibhear "Big Ed" Keesling. "Ain't she some pumpkins?" Childs called out.
Big Ed was an Irishman with a walrus mustache and a weakness for the chew. He paused to have him a look, chewed some, then spat. "M'boy, a gun's a gun," he said, unimpressed. "Matters less the quality of the gun's make and more the quality of the man's."
Big Ed punctuated his words in spit, then ambled on, as was his wont.
Unhitched at this, Childs staggered off the boardwalk in pursuit.
* * *
Now, here's where there is some dispute as to what transpired. According to Childs, the gunman shoved past him entering the General Store. According to Lockwood, the cowhand wandered straight into him. Either way, a collision occurred, bringing both men up short.
"Excuse me, ole man," Childs said, insincere as all get-out.
"You're excused, son," Lockwood said, deadpan. Then, without so much as another thought, the gunman continued into the store.
What is not in dispute is what happened next.
* * *
Inside, the Bostonian was in mid-transaction when the Texan returned with his dander riled up. On the countertop were Lockwood's saddle, a single dollar bill and two cartridges.
"You a'mockin' me?" the cowhand said.
Standing with his back to the Texan, Lockwood remained still, his gaze settling upon the teakwood mirror behind the storekeep; there the gunman took the cowhand's stock. If he had been a gambling man, Lockwood would have pegged the Texan's age as a third of his own. With iron already in hand, there was no mistaking that the boy had the drop on him. Yet, the iron was too clean, a recent purchase. His breath was erratic; his hand, unsure. He's never challenged a man to a gunfight before, Lockwood surmised. He doesn't know.
"Standing like that, a man could get the inclination that you were threatening him."
"Ahh ain't threatenin'. Ahh'mma callin' you out."
"That so? You liable to shoot a man in the back?"
"Ma ain't raised no coward: Ahh want you to draw."
"No. I can assure you, you don't."
"The hell Ahh don't," the Texan said, cocking the gun. "Now, draw!"
At that Lockwood laughed. "Say I do as you like, what then?"
"Liable to gun you down."
"Sure, let's ride with that: You gun me down," Lockwood said. "May even make a name for yourself. You like that? Bet you do. What then? You go back, settle down, marry that sage hen you fancy and tend some cattle?
"No. There's no going back, no settling down. You'll grow restless like gunmen do. Have to prove it wasn't some fluke. If not to anyone else, then to yourself. So, you'll hit the trail. Maybe come into honest gunwork, maybe not. You'll gun down another man, then another and perhaps another still. Know where that trail ends?
"With some greenhorn buck making a name for himself by gunning you down. Now, you tell me plain: That what you want, son?"
There was a pregnant pause. Lockwood watched as the cowhand wrangled with insights he never once considered. Sadly, for all concerned, those insights led him down the wrong path. "You calling me a 'coward,' ole man?"
To the storekeeper, he upheld two fingers, indicating he would need two more cartridges.
* * *
Once the dust had settled outside, the cowhand was laid up on hardscrabble plain staring into a starless night. He had been shot, twice.
Across some vast distance, he could hear the gunman's measured approach. He seemed almost sad as he tended to his own gun, ejecting the spent shells and replacing them in turn. He was not unkind when he said, "If it's any consolation, son, wished I'd listened too—back when I had no name."
And with that, Leslie Childs Jr. passed through Ogallala.